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A presidential pardon thought to be one of Abraham Lincoln's last acts wasn't. The National Archives says an amateur historian confessed to altering the date on the document to make it appear as if Lincoln signed it on the same day he was shot.

NPR's Serri Graslie reports.

SERRI GRASLIE: The story was almost too good to be true. During the Civil War, a Union soldier was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death. But a court marshal board recommended clemency after he was deemed insane. In one of his last acts before his fateful trip to Ford's Theater, Abraham Lincoln spared the man from death.

Thomas Lowry is the retired psychiatrist who discovered the pardon. He told the story to MORNING EDITION host Bob Edwards in 1998.

Mr. THOMAS LOWRY (Retired Psychiatrist): And it went on up through the channels with that same recommendation and Lincoln endorsed it in a paragraph that he wrote in his own hand.

Unidentified Man: With just hours to live himself.

Mr. LOWRY: Yes.

Unidentified Man: Wow.

GRASLIE: Lowry and his wife discovered the document while researching hundreds of the president's pardons. Ed Steer is the Lincoln biographer who knows Lowry. And he says fellow historians were excited about the find.

Mr. ED STEER (Abraham Lincoln Biographer): We sort of had this morbid interest in every moment of his last moments. And it is so typical of Abraham Lincoln that among the last things that he did, presumably, was to pardon a soldier.

GRASLIE: The National Archives put the pardon on public display in 2000. Archivist Trevor Plant would show the original to visitors and he says he didn't think twice about the date for years.

Mr. TREVOR PLANT (Archivist): And the more I used it, the more it just - it just didn't look right. The five was a little bit darker, which in itself, isn't, you know, necessarily a red flag, but it looked like there was a number underneath it and I kind of got this gut feeling that something wasn't right here.

GRASLIE: Plant did some research which gave him reason to believe that the pardon's issue date was actually 1864, not 1865. He handed his information over to the Archives' inspector general's office, which began an investigation. He says they emailed Lowry asking for help.

Mr. PLANT: The more it became apparent what they were working on, then he stopped writing back.

GRASLIE: Officials from the archives say that when confronted by officers at his home two weeks ago, Lowry wrote and signed a confession. They say he admitted to using a fountain pen with fade-proof ink to change the date.

Lowry did not respond to a request for an interview with NPR, but told The Washington Post he was pressured into signing. He also said, quote, "I consider these records sacred. It is entirely out of character for me. I'm a man of honor."

Ed Steer, the Lincoln biographer, is baffled and calls the forgery a tragedy. He says he hopes the news will remind historians and everyone else about the importance of skepticism.

Serri Graslie, NPR News.

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